Friday, August 19, 2005

SLAPPing Down the First Amendment

Avedon Carol links to an essay by Molly Ivins about SLAPP suits and how corporations and even government use them to muzzle free speech and curtail Americans' right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

SLAPP suits (for "strategic lawsuits against public participation") are a serious menace to free speech. The latest example is a real prize: The Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has already spent $10 million defending itself against a lawsuit filed by Isuzu Motors Ltd. because, eight years earlier, Consumer Reports rated the Isuzu Trooper "not acceptable" for safety reasons. And the case has not yet reached trial.

And that is the real menace of SLAPP suits. It's not that corporations win them, but that they cost critics so much money that the critics are silenced -- and so is everyone else who even thinks about raising some question about a corporate product or practice.

Isuzu claims that CU's reports are "not scientific or credible," but the company's internal memos state that the "lawsuit is a PR tool" and "when attacked, CU will probably shut up." According to a study by two University of Denver law professors, "Americans by the thousands are being sued, simply for exercising the right to speak out on public issues, such as health and safety."

Ivins points out that Consumers Union, with its deep pockets and lack of corporate advertising, is both financially and strategically in a much better position to handle this kind of lawsuit than an individual or small business would be.

Yet, increasingly, it's individuals and small businesses or community groups who are being sued by corporations or by the government -- simply for exercising their right to speak freely, their right to complain (petition the government for redress of grievances), or both. Here are some examples, from PR Watch:

  • In Las Vegas, a local doctor was sued over his allegations that a city hospital violated the state's hospital cost containment law.
  • In Baltimore, members of a local community group faced a $52 million lawsuit after circulating a letter questioning the property-buying practices of a local housing developer.
  • In West Virginia, an environmental activist faced a $200,000 lawsuit for criticizing a coal mining company's activities that were poisoning a local river.
  • In Pennsylvania, a farmer was sued after testifying to his township supervisors that a low-flying helicopter owned by a local landfill operator caused a stampede that killed several of his cows.
  • In Washington state, a homeowner found that she couldn't get a mortgage because her real estate company had failed to pay taxes owed on her house. She uncovered hundreds of similar cases, and the company was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. In retaliation, it dragged her through six years of legal harassment before a jury finally found her innocent of slander.
  • In Rhode Island, a resident of North Kingstown wrote a letter complaining about contamination of the local drinking water from a nearby landfill and spent the next five years defending herself against the landfill owner's attorneys, who charged her with "defamation" and "interference with prospective business contracts."
  • In South Carolina, an animal rights activist was sued for $4 million after writing a letter to an obscure research journal protesting an Austrian company's plans to use chimpanzees in hepatitis research.
  • In Missouri, a high school English teacher was hit with a $1 million libel suit after complaining to a weekly newspaper that an incinerator burning hospital waste was a health hazard.

Again, these lawsuits are not being filed on the merits. Most of the time the plaintiffs don't necessarily expect to win the suit. The point is to drag the case out as long as possible until the defendant's financial and emotional resources are exhausted. Even if the defendant does not drop the case, or wins the case, it's still a victory for the filer of the lawsuit, because of its chilling effect on others, who see what happens when they speak out or write a letter to the editor. Corporations are using their vast amounts of money, armies of well-paid attorneys, and government connections as an uber-advantage to destroy anyone from saying anything negative about their products or services.

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